Conflict and cooperation: in ant research

What do people associate with ants (besides kitchen visits)? I bet many will name cooperation and conflict. These also shape human society, including research, and who would be better suited than ant researchers to share their personal views on these social interactions? In reaching out to the community, we contacted five female and five male myrmecologists, each from a different state (for the detailed selection criteria, see end of page). We always asked the same four questions and received replies from six researchers.

 

Flash interviews compiled by Florian M. Steiner

As always, researchers in random order, and answers not edited

 

Tae-Sung Kwon, South Korea

MNB: Have you ever been involved in a scientific conflict? If so, do you think this conflict rather stimulated or impeded progress in that field of science?

T-SK: No.

 

MNB: Considering the emotional level – how can calm and fairness be achieved when one is involved in a scientific conflict?

T-SK: I do not know.

 

MNB: What is the relevance of cooperation to you in day-to-day science: interactively generating ideas, sharing tasks, a formal reason, anything else?

T-SK: Interactively generating ideas.

 

MNB: Have you experienced that cooperation can also slow down progress because responsibilities became diluted, task sharing was not well thought-out, cooperation partners worked into different directions, or anything else? If so, how can negative effects of cooperation be avoided?

T-SK: Sorry, I do not know.

 

 

Wolfgang Rössler, Germany

MNB: Have you ever been involved in a scientific conflict? If so, do you think this conflict rather stimulated or impeded progress in that field of science?

WR: Both is possible. I remember a case when a paper with methodological flaws and wrong conclusions somehow made its way into a highly ranked journal. It subsequently impeded progress in the field for several years because the solution to a problem appeared simple. On the other hand, by discussing controversial hypotheses before publication, scientific conflict can be stimulating, especially when constructive scientific discourse leads to unexpected new ideas or hypotheses.

 

MNB: Considering the emotional level – how can calm and fairness be achieved when one is involved in a scientific conflict?

WR: The problem is that many of us made their hobby to their profession. This bears the danger of getting emotionally involved in a scientific conflict. When I was dean and had to solve all kinds of conflicts, I quickly learned to first ask myself ‘Why is the other person emotional?’ and/or ‘Why do I get emotional?’. The next important step is to wait (if you can) and sleep over it before you respond! This greatly helped me, in most cases, to bring conflicts down to the objective level and find solutions.

 

MNB: What is the relevance of cooperation to you in day-to-day science: interactively generating ideas, sharing tasks, a formal reason, anything else?

WR: Cooperation is an essential component for me to pursue multidisciplinary projects in ant neuroethology. This includes exchange of methods and sharing tasks within and across disciplines. In discussions with collaborators from different disciplines, you have to explain your approach more explicitly. In the best case, the different perspectives generate new ideas, even with (or because of?) initial communication difficulties.

 

MNB: Have you experienced that cooperation can also slow down progress because responsibilities became diluted, task sharing was not well thought-out, cooperation partners worked into different directions, or anything else? If so, how can negative effects of cooperation be avoided?

WR: Scientific cooperation, in my opinion, should always be a bottom-up process and solely driven by research questions. In times of excellence programs and big collaborative grants, cooperation, sometimes, is pushed artificially, mainly to make the impression of interdisciplinary science. This can be distracting and time consuming regarding scientific progress.

 

 

Therese Löfroth, Sweden

MNB: Have you ever been involved in a scientific conflict? If so, do you think this conflict rather stimulated or impeded progress in that field of science?

TL: Nothing serious that could not immediately be solved.

 

MNB: Considering the emotional level – how can calm and fairness be achieved when one is involved in a scientific conflict?

TL: I think it takes a lot of self control and reflexion to stay calm if the conflict gets personal. To stay professional and not use emotional arguments is the way to go I guess.

 

MNB: What is the relevance of cooperation to you in day-to-day science: interactively generating ideas, sharing tasks, a formal reason, anything else?

TL: Cooperation is extremely important for generating ideas, developing research projects, and producing high-quality research.

 

MNB: Have you experienced that cooperation can also slow down progress because responsibilities became diluted, task sharing was not well thought-out, cooperation partners worked into different directions, or anything else? If so, how can negative effects of cooperation be avoided?

TL: Yes, not all cooperations fall out well. It is easier to get things to work if expectations are known from the start but also if you choose partners that you work well with. By developing good teams, research is often strengthened by cooperation.

 

 

David E.M. General, Philippines

MNB: Have you ever been involved in a scientific conflict? If so, do you think this conflict rather stimulated or impeded progress in that field of science?

DEMG: No, I have not had any serious scientific conflicts. Although, a person once shouted at me from another table at the cafeteria (not in the Philippines) when he overheard me explaining evolution to my friend. The unruly person vehemently refused to believe that he was related to monkeys. I just let him rant and ignored him.

 

MNB: Considering the emotional level – how can calm and fairness be achieved when one is involved in a scientific conflict?

DEMG: One should be dispassionate and unemotional when dealing with scientific conflict, just as dry as scientific writing. But, of course, this is being idealistic. Many scientists are very passionate about their scientific beliefs.

 

MNB: What is the relevance of cooperation to you in day-to-day science: interactively generating ideas, sharing tasks, a formal reason, anything else?

DEMG: In our institutions (University of the Philippines Los Baños andPLB and Philippines National Museum of Natural History), because of very limited resources, my fellow entomologists and I are forced to cooperate with each other, sharing permits, specimens, and even supplies sometimes. In this work environment, one must cooperate or be unproductive. Coffee breaks are also times when we share insights and ask questions of our colleagues.

 

MNB: Have you experienced that cooperation can also slow down progress because responsibilities became diluted, task sharing was not well thought-out, cooperation partners worked into different directions, or anything else? If so, how can negative effects of cooperation be avoided?

DEMG: Yes, sometimes there is a miscommunication and a task is not performed. Especially in the field, when we expect colleagues to collect specimens for each other in their own particular locations, sometimes it doesn’t work out. Somebody is bound to forget about the others. But, this situation is usually taken in stride, since it all balances out in the end. I guess it’s more important to manage your expectations of your colleagues. You eventually learn who can be trusted to help you and who cannot, and work with that knowledge.

 

 

Rachelle M.M. Adams, USA

MNB: Have you ever been involved in a scientific conflict? If so, do you think this conflict rather stimulated or impeded progress in that field of science?

RMMA: I have been involved in what I would consider minor as well as possibly career-impacting conflicts. The minor conflicts occurred when writing papers with collaborators. These involved how to frame an article and what conclusions could be drawn from our results. I think this kind of conflict offers an opportunity of reflection and creativity as long as the power dynamics are not negatively imposed by more senior authors. I find this kind of conflict can be fun and move science forward as long as there is mutual respect and both parties’ opinions are heard.

The second conflict that I would like to share was between me and a more senior scientist. In this case it occurred in public at a conference. I was unaware that this person was upset with how our collaboration had ended many years ago. We were standing in a group and the person verbally shamed me and then struck my leg! I was shocked and embarrassed as this occurred in a mixed group that included a senior member in my field that I respect very much. The tense moment dissipated after I explained my version of the events and pointed out that the project we were to collaborate on was eventually dropped. We left the group conversation somewhat amiable but I was emotionally shaken. I had to give a talk later in the conference and I was not sure if this person would continue to harass me in public. I also worry that they may not be capable of providing unbiased reviews of my grants and papers. This was a situation where the power dynamics were not equal. I had just been hired in a tenure-track position and they were a full professor. I do not know if this conflict impeded science directly. It certainly was impactful to me personally and rattled my confidence.

 

MNB: Considering the emotional level – how can calm and fairness be achieved when one is involved in a scientific conflict?

RMMA: I think calm and fairness comes from empathy and listening. When students and postdocs have a voice in conversations, not only does it build their confidence, but it creates a healthy atmosphere for intellectual exchange. Now as a PI in a growing lab, I think about how my students might perceive our relationship. How each student is unique and needs help or guidance in different ways. In my experience, conflict stems from insecurities on one or both sides. Students and postdocs can feel minimalized when conflicts occur at a time when stress and anxiety can already be overwhelming. I think we all make mistakes and it is important to forgive each other for our missteps. Obviously, chronic bullies should not be tolerated, and those that are in a position of power should protect those that are not. Ultimately, I feel we all need to use self-reflection to help us work through conflict. Why has the conflict occurred and can the relationship be repaired? Often this takes time for reflection and then a follow-up conversation and forgiveness. It may not always resolve the conflict at hand but should help us avoid or resolve conflicts in the future. I think mentors in particular need to make sure they are seeing the situation from the perspective of their mentee. Most likely, students and postdocs have more to lose and should be empowered, not penalized for expressing their opinions.

 

MNB: What is the relevance of cooperation to you in day-to-day science: interactively generating ideas, sharing tasks, a formal reason, anything else?

RMMA: Cooperation has been an essential component of my day-to-day science since I was an undergraduate researcher. Science is most often done in teams and this aspect makes the process more enjoyable and productive. Understanding the strengths of individuals and making sure that contributions of each member are recognized is key. For this reason, it is important to learn how to navigate conflict and disagreement in a professional manner so that all team members are contributing their best ideas.

 

MNB: Have you experienced that cooperation can also slow down progress because responsibilities became diluted, task sharing was not well thought-out, cooperation partners worked into different directions, or anything else? If so, how can negative effects of cooperation be avoided?

RMMA: I think when building a team, all members should be honest about when they can accomplish their tasks. This will allow everyone to adjust their personal timeline and avoid frustration later. Inevitably, deadlines slip due to more urgent matters and the whole team needs to be flexible and adjust. In my experience, senior authors can often delay manuscript submission with little regard for how this can be detrimental to the junior author’s career. This can be frustrating for the co-authors when they do not understand why a manuscript is being delayed. Mentors should consider prioritizing work that will help advance their mentee’s career but also explain why delays happen. This enriches relationships and understanding so that frustrations do not build to resentment.

 

 

Bernard Kaufmann, France

MNB: Have you ever been involved in a scientific conflict? If so, do you think this conflict rather stimulated or impeded progress in that field of science?

BK: Scientific conflict covers multiple categories. There is conflict for ideas, there is conflict for position and dominance, there is conflict for funding or hiring. And there is personal, often irrational, conflict based on distrust, dislike, and emotions.

Conflict for ideas do exist, such as the taxonomical controversy between P. Ward and B. Seifert about the naming of parasitic ant genera within Tetramorium or Temnothorax. This clearly stimulated thinking about evolution of sociality as well as on the relationships between taxonomy, ecology and fitting names to easily memorized realities. In the end, it came down to preferences between strict cladistics norms and an integrative approach to systematics. The conflict went on until it fizzled out upon the realization that cladistics norms would prevail, but that the integrative approach needed to be kept alive, maybe by giving sub-genus names or something similar.

Closer to me, a less overt conflict over a scientific idea occurred when discussing the nature of Tetramorium immigrans as an invasive or native species in some parts of Europe. Our results seemed to show some signs of non-nativeness, the experts on Tetramorium in Innsbruck disagreed. This pushed us to investigate further for better clues and a better understanding of the species and its relationships with closely related species.

Conflict over scientific ideas can be very stimulating as long as it does not lead to mistrust or further to obstruction when papers are being reviewed or when exchanging data and ideas.

Conflicts for position and dominance can occur within labs or within the social insects community, esp. when funding or hiring are at stake. Funding is scarce, but competition is not very strong among ant researchers, who are too few to really compete on the same calls or funding agencies. It hasn’t happened to me (yet).

Personal conflict exists in every community. This is a topos of course, but recognizing conflict as personal and not about ideas or practices is an important step in solving conflicts. Personal conflicts can be irrational, rising from lack of listening and headstrongness (to which I must confess for my younger years as a scientist, as some might easily remember), mistrust, paranoia, or simple dislike. They can also be rational when one has been through a negative experience during cooperation. They can also be borne out of supervisor-student relationship.

Personal conflicts are to my knowledge rarely stimulating, and should be solved rapidly through better communication. One rather traumatic conflict (at the time) I had stemmed from a supervisor – student relationship. We were two co-supervisors of one phD student. Our relationship (student vs both supervisors) kept degrading during the second year of doctoral research, to the point where it exploded during a thesis steering committee. Steering committees, made up of 2-4 colleagues who are not involved in the thesis itself) include a time when the student can talk in the absence of the supervisors. During this time, the student erupted in tears, blaming the supervisors for everything that seemed wrong with her thesis. The steering committee (to whom I’ll ever be thankful) wisely decided to reconvene a month later, leaving time for the student to write down her grievances and to prepare to explain them, this time before her supervisors.  I must say it started uneasily for everyone, but once her grievances, as well as ours, were aired, put in perspective and quietly debated, thanks to the committee, we were able to defuse the situation, removing one of the most salient issues (a complete misunderstanding about who had to do what, and in which order, in an article), and proposing a new way forward, with regularly spaced meetings between the three of us. Since then, we were able to navigate through her third and last year as a phD student; our meetings are actually real fun, relaxed and productive. She is feeling much better, as are we, and scientifically, she was able to overcome the pressures of her phD and submit four papers in less than four months.

 

MNB: Considering the emotional level – how can calm and fairness be achieved when one is involved in a scientific conflict?

BK: Calm and fairness can be achieved by removing the “emotional” part, which first has to be acknowledged as such. Among the most well-known conflict resolution methods, nonviolent communication is one of the easiest to implement, especially as it appeals to our scientist’s rationality and ability to step-back from ourselves. As indicated above, involving a neutral and benevolent third party can also be a huge help. Meeting in person over a beer or a cup of coffee or tea can also work, especially in the context of a congress or an invited seminar. If there is someone you don’t trust or like, or whose ideas clash with your own, invite them to give a seminar in your lab …

 

MNB: What is the relevance of cooperation to you in day-to-day science: interactively generating ideas, sharing tasks, a formal reason, anything else?

BK: In today’s science, cooperation is absolutely necessary, within your institution or with people from other places. All current statistics point to an increasing number of papers with more than one nationality or institution in the authors’ list. Generating ideas often stems from the confrontation of methods, models and even epistemology. Within my lab, I work with colleagues who are ecophysiologists, phylogeneticists, plant ecologists or specialists in stable isotopes. Our most recent papers also included geographers and computer scientists from other labs in my university. I also share a PhD supervision with a geographer.

External cooperation can be useful to gather large amounts of samples from a larger area (e.g. our paper on the Tapinoma nigerrimum complex), to combine different methods or datasets. Field sites might also be shared – for instance, we have found >90 colonies of Lasius neglectus close to Lyon, half of which are infected by a parasitic fungus, which is a unique situation; we now plan to cooperate with S. Tragust who is a specialist of this host-parasite interaction and who would find in Lyon the perfect place to conduct research. Our institutions also push towards scientific plurality, making collaborative projects with other sciences and the humanities more attractive. Finally, the day to day work as a university scientist in France (and in other places, too) involves long teaching hours, student mentoring, and administrative work; producing research alone in such a configuration, while not impossible, is challenging and rarely a good idea for one’s continued psychological well-being.

 

MNB: Have you experienced that cooperation can also slow down progress because responsibilities became diluted, task sharing was not well thought-out, cooperation partners worked into different directions, or anything else? If so, how can negative effects of cooperation be avoided?

BK: There are negative sides to cooperation, for instance when two collaborating people work on the same part of a study, but do not communicate, or when one scientist needs time away for some reason. The best way to overcome this hurdle is always to commit to a schedule of meetings and deadlines for the different tasks, and to divide tasks with everyone’s explicit agreement from the start. Always appoint someone who’s responsible for each task, and let as many people as possible be responsible of at least some task.

 

 

Detailed criteria in selecting myrmecologists to contact

From a list of all sovereign states, states were randomly drawn and used in a Web of Science search for papers on Formicidae from the last five years. The senior author of the youngest returned paper was contacted in case her/his address was indeed from that state. The selected author’s gender was recorded, and the process continued until five female and five male interviewees had been listed.

 

Featured image: Icons made by www.freepik.com from www.flaticon.com is licensed by Creative Commons BY 3.0

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